by Nick Smith, Ball State University
“The world as we know it is gone…. Scarred by endless wars, humanity struggles to survive in the ruins of the old world. Frozen in an everlasting nuclear winter. This is the future. This is the year 1997” (00:01:17-00:01:34). These are among the first words of the 2015 film, Turbo Kid, spoken offscreen by Frederic, an important character in the film. This, along with a cover of John Farnham’s 1986 song “Thunder in Your Heart,” are the first things heard in the film. These elements quickly establish the setting of the film, giving it its ‘80s wasteland feel. The film’s main character, The Kid, wants nothing more than for the world to return to the way that it was. He looks through old comic books and decides he wants to be like his hero, Turbo Rider. That’s why he sees it as his responsibility to take up the superhero mantle himself and put a stop to the tyrannical villain who rules over the civilians, Zeus. While most post-apocalyptic narratives portray looking back as a weakness, Turbo Kid modifies this, presenting it as a strength via The Kid’s nostalgia for the 1980s.
To be nostalgic and long for the past in a post-apocalyptic environment is not unreasonable – the arrival of an apocalypse is sure to disrupt time and instantly cause some to desire to be back in the time before the apocalypse. This representation of the apocalypse as a disruption to the temporal sequence is not uncommon. James Berger, an expert on apocalyptic theory, writes, “[Apocalypses] function as definitive historical divides, as ruptures, pivots, fulcrums separating what came before from what came after” (Berger 5). The divide in this film is very clear. Before we get to the wasteland that is the year 1997, there was the prosperous 1980s – which is why we see many items from this era in the film. During the introductory sequence of the movie, The Kid returns to his dwelling, an underground bunker. This bunker is filled with items The Kid found necessary to keep, most notably a Rubik’s cube, a Walkman, a View-Master, and some gum that bears a resemblance to Hubba Bubba. These items serve next to no practical purpose for survival. Rather, they serve as a method of entertainment, a way of forgetting the way things are and remembering the way they used to be, before the end.
In the United States, a significant portion of citizens would likely consider looking back at the past in anguish as something that prevents forward movement. In a post-apocalyptic environment, this feeling is frequently true as well. In many apocalyptic texts, those individuals who reminisce about the days of old, grieve at their losses, and wish to have their loved ones back are typically the next ones to lose their lives. For example, in Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina’s community fails to recognize the dismal state of the world around them. Instead, they wall themselves off, imagining that everything is alright. The majority of the community believe themselves safe, with it being a challenge for them to even get people to agree to form a neighborhood watch. It is this mentality that makes it so easy for others to knock down the walls of their community, rape, and murder most of those inside. Similarly, in Genesis 19:25, Sodom and Gomorrah are completely destroyed. Lot’s wife, however, cannot stop thinking about the home that she is walking away from. She looks back, and, as a result, is turned into a pillar of salt.
The Kid is more similar to these characters than he is dissimilar–and he is mocked for it. However, in a twist on the typical narrative, The Kid’s nostalgia is actually what keeps him alive. He keeps his View-Master on his person at all times. In one instance, The Kid uses it to view images of Turbo Rider (00:16:16-00:16:22). This nostalgia trip is one of the driving actions that leads to him donning the identity of Turbo Kid. Once he embraces this identity, the bad guys who had been mocking him meet their demise left and right.
In the final fight of the film, The Kid teams up with Frederic, the man who spoke the opening lines of the film. Having previously made fun of The Kid, Frederic sees the good that The Kid has done and becomes a believer in his quest, deciding to help him stop Zeus. In a moment that appears as though nostalgia may be a weakness after all, The Kid is shot. However, it is soon revealed that he was not fatally injured; rather, the container he kept his View-Master reels in took the brunt of the impact, saving his life (1:18:42-1:18:45). The Kid is, quite literally, saved by the images of the past, images of a time before the apocalypse. He is saved by the ‘80s, and, as a result, allowed to get back in the fight and defeat Zeus once and for all.
The Kid reveals what is truly of value to him and refuses to deviate from the path. His success is a twist on what modern day society, as well as apocalyptic narratives, usually tell us about looking back. As opposed to being weakened by the past, The Kid is strengthened by it and uses that strength to push towards a better future.
Berger, James, 1954. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999.
Turbo Kid. Directed by Anouk Whissell & François Simard & Yoann-Karl Whissell, EMA Films & Timpson Films, 2015. Netflix.